One small claim to fame of mine is that I was present during Fidel Castro’s final public speech as Cuban President back in 2006. Stood at a lectern about 50 yards from me, El Maximo Lider harangued the relatively small crowd for over two hours, littering his speech with the usual denunciations of ‘Yankee imperialism’, ‘capitalist monopolies’ and – I particularly enjoyed this part – ‘Bush and Blair’.
For a young revolutionary tourist like myself the spectacle of the bearded ideologue in full flow was subversively exciting: I hated all of those things too, or at least I thought I did. Like so many who pretend to despise the boring machinations of liberal democracy I was passionately rooting for the romanticism of Che Guevara over the banal compromises of the capitalist system. And so beards, green fatigues and tropical exuberance were in and Starbucks and McDonalds were most definitely out.
But in reality the ‘plucky Caribbean island’ was no tropical Shoreditch and what I witnessed was the stage-set Cuba rather than the grim and Spartan reality. I was a Useful Idiot, in other words; a person who would valorise the 95 per cent literacy rate on the island without telling you that it was the Cuban Government which decided what a person was allowed to read. Like many a pampered comrade, I rallied against the ‘superficiality’ of McDonald’s and Burger King while forgetting that plastic food is incomparably better than no food at all.
And yet one of the most dispiriting things in politics is the way that people feel the need to defend those superficially on their own ‘side’. Cuba is nominally socialist therefore all opposition is – and once was in my view - invariably ‘right-wing’ and ‘reactionary’.
Yet in reality any socialist or liberal ought to stand in vehement opposition to the Government in Havana. Cuban labour rights are virtually non-existent. There are no independent trade unions and freedom of expression is non-existent. The Cuban media in its printed form, with its endless stories of fraternal visits by North Korean officials and eulogies to Fidel Castro, was most accurately described by the late Argentinean editor and dissident Jacobo Timerman as “a degradation of the act of reading”.
All of this explains why the most penetrating critiques of Cuban socialism come not from the foaming-at-the-mouth right but from the progressive left. As Carlos Franqui, the closest thing Cuba has to its own George Orwell, once put it, “The socialist world is not socialist; it’s the world where the people are forced to work and to endure permanent rationing and scarcity, where they have neither rights nor freedoms.”
Not that you would know any of this from listening to our own trade union-sponsored Cuban Solidarity campaign.
In pictures: Timeline of US and Cuba relations
In pictures: Timeline of US and Cuba relations
1/19 Cuba timeline
July 1953: Fidel Castro begins a revolutionary campaign against the regime of Cuban President Fulgencio Batista
2/19 Cuba timeline
January 1959: Castro and Che Guevara enter Havana after a successful final offensive. Batista flees, and Castro becomes prime minister, ruling by decree
3/19 Cuba timeline
October 1960: Castro’s reforms sees hundreds of US businesses in Cuba nationalised and their owners not compensated. In December, US US breaks off diplomatic relations and imposes a trade embargo
4/19 Cuba timeline
April 1961: Cuban exiles launch the Bay of Pigs invasion with US backing
5/19 Cuba timeline
October 1962: A 13-day confrontation known as the Cuban missile crisis begins when Castro allows the USSR to deploy nuclear missiles on the island. Generally regarded as the closest the world has come to nuclear war
6/19 Cuba timeline
1962: US President John F Kennedy signs off a naval blockade
7/19 Cuba timeline
April 1980: A sharp downturn in the Cuban economy and Castro temporarily lifting restrictions sees around 125,000 people, many of them released convicts, flee to the US
8/19 Cuba timeline
February 1996: Cuba shoots down two US aircraft operated by Miami-based Cuban exiles, prompting the US to make its trade embargo permanent
9/19 Cuba timeline
June 2001: The case of the “Cuban Five” begins, as five spies in Miami are convicted of providing intelligence to the Havana government
10/19 Cuba timeline
Nov 2001: US sells $30m of food to the Cuban government to assist in the aftermath of Hurricane Michelle, which killed 22 people, the first food export between the countries for more than 40 years
11/19 Cuba timeline
Oct 2003: US President George W Bush announces fresh anti-communist measures, including tightening the travel embargo and creating a new government body, the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba
12/19 Cuba timeline
Aug 2006: President Bush seizes the opportunity of President Castro’s illness and a handover of powers to Raul Castro, urging Cubans to work towards democratic change
13/19 Cuba timeline
Feb 2008: Raul Castro officially takes over as president. Washington responds by saying its trade embargo will remain in force unless free and fair elections are held
14/19 Cuba timeline
Dec 2008: A poll by Florida International University suggests for the first time that a majority of Cuban-Americans living in Miami want an end to the embargo
15/19 Cuba timeline
April 2009: President Obama lifts restrictions on family travel to Cuba
16/19 Cuba timeline
Dec 2009: US aid worker Alan Gross is detained in Cuba on suspicion of spying for Washington
17/19 Cuba timeline
Nov 2010: American Ballet Theatre performs in Cuba for the first time in 50 years, the most high-profile in a series of cultural exchanges
18/19 Cuba timeline
Sep 2012: Cuba hints at its willingness to do a deal with Washington on the Gross case
19/19 Cuba timeline
December 2013: President Obama and Raul Castro shake hands at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela. Castro says in English: “Mr President, I am Castro.” It was hailed in Cuba as “the beginning of the end” for what were then described as “US aggressions”
Yet for all the repression and economic failure that have come to characterise Cuban ‘socialism’, successive American governments have helped to prolong the life of the moribund communist system through hubris and stupidity. The most striking example of this is the economic embargo, introduced in 1960 after Cuba decided to nationalise its large industries. As a tool of the US Government the embargo must register as one of the least effective foreign policy initiatives in US history. It hasn’t simply failed to topple the Castro brothers, but instead has helped them to cement their 55-year rule by portraying the US as all of the things the regime says it is: the bullying and controlling neighbour that wants to turn the island back into a corrupt brothel.
Thus when current Cuban President Raul Castro blames the embargo for “enormous human and economic damage” he isn’t simply lying like a good Stalinist. The embargo costs Cuba around £1.2 billion a year and directly increases the suffering of the Cuban people, exacerbating shortages in everything from medical supplies to baby food. Certain caveats introduced to the embargo more recently also threaten Cuban citizens with the loss of their homes based on spurious property claims originating in the 1950s.
And so for almost 60 years the Cuban people have been offered a Hobson’s choice by the Castro regime: stick with us or go back to the domination, racism and sordid excesses of American rule. The embargo is the excuse that for half a century has kept on giving: the mess around you is nothing to do with us, so the Castro brothers are allowed to say, instead it is the fault of unhinged American Congressmen who want to violently snatch back what was taken from their gilded friends half a century ago.
Fortunately Barack Obama has decided to stop listening to the shrill voices on Capitol Hill and, uniquely for an American President, appears to understand that the best way to defeat the Castro brothers is to take away their raison d'être by ending the immoral and counterproductive economic embargo. What a shame it has taken so long – and so many generations of impoverished and tyrannised Cuban citizens – to get to this point.Reuse content